UCL in the blood: Dr May Akrawi, Emerging Technology Expert and President of the UCLFAA
Dr May Akrawi (BSc Biochemistry 1988, PhD in Molecular Biology 1995) specialises in emerging and disruptive technologies.
8 December 2023
She's spent years travelling the world, working with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, BP and Deloitte. But despite her packed schedule, leading groundbreaking projects and advising on international policy, May always finds time to volunteer for UCL.
"When I first walked into UCL, it was like I'd arrived home,” says May. "And I still carry that same feeling today. That’s unbelievably powerful."
Since 2021, May - who now lives in Houston, Texas - has sat on the Board of Directors for the UCL Friends & Alumni Association (UCLFAA), a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation in the United States. This month, she became the organisation’s president.
May says: “I was incredibly honoured when Emily Prince, from the UCL Advancement Office, and the UCLFAA Nominating Committee invited me to join the UCLFAA Board in 2021, and even more so when elected President. We have an incredible group of dedicated alumni on the board, from whom I have much to learn. Mark Cleary, our past president, has left big shoes to fill, and he has been (and continues to be) a great mentor.”
Iraq, UCL, the world
May was born in Iraq to an academic family. Her father was originally offered a place at UCL to study medicine at the time when WWII broke out, so instead he went to medical school at The University of Baghdad – which was founded by two of May’s great uncles.
After her father finished his medical studies, and a further FRCS in London, he went on to work with the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Council to provide opportunities for Iraqi medical students to complete their surgical training in the UK. Her wider family also had close ties with the UK - her mother studied a BSc in Science at Reading University - and May fondly remembers many summers spent in London.
May left Iraq for London permanently aged 14 when the Iran/Iraq war broke out, and it was here where May’s fascination for science and new technology began. She says: “Someone from the Nuffield Foundation spoke to our school about genetic engineering. This was in the 80s, and I felt like it could change the world.”
She applied to all of the London universities to study biochemistry, but there was one snag. May had a phobia of rodents. “It was the one thing that could have stopped me from doing this degree, but UCL had a solution and worked the practicals out around this for me. That felt really special and caring. It represents the support I felt right the way through my studies.”
May has many happy memories of her time at UCL. From her work with Professor Elizabeth Shepherd - whose lab she joined in 1988 for her PhD research in molecular biology - through to time spent with friends in the Bloomsbury Theatre. “In my third year, my sister joined UCL to do her BSc in Computer Science. And with her came many friends that we knew from childhood,” says May.
They had to pry me off the furniture, and since then, I’ve never stopped loving UCL.“
“In 1992, I became a research assistant in Professor Shepherd’s lab, but after two years, I knew I needed to stretch my wings. They had to pry me off the furniture, and since then, I’ve never stopped loving UCL.”
May moved to Barcelona for a postdoctoral fellowship before embarking on a varied and truly global career. She says: “I moved to the USA in 2001, and the first job I had was at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office as HM Consul. I was Head of Science, Innovation & Climate Change, which was all about academic collaboration and policy. Naturally, UCL was a perfect partner.
“That is the beauty of UCL. The multidisciplinary environment meant we could pull people from various schools to contribute to the policy and the science we worked with. I find myself bumping into people who’ve studied at UCL all over the world.”
Following her role at the Consul, May has held strategic roles at the Consulate General of Norway, BP, and Deloitte before her current work as a corporate strategy consultant, where she specialises in the use of emerging and disruptive technologies in digital and energy transformations.
Giving it back
May’s passion for UCL has meant she’s been giving back as a volunteer for many years. She’s supported undergraduate students from underrepresented groups through the UCL Skills Mentoring Programme, given early career advice at an online alumni panel event, and is currently establishing an alumni group in Houston – with a launch event planned for 8 December.
May says: “UCL has given me so much across my career and personal life that now it’s an absolute pleasure to support students and recent graduates to set them up for success.”
To shape this support at a strategic level, she joined UCLFAA as a board member in 2021. The non-profit organisation helps to raise awareness and support for research, education, and innovation at UCL. It also manages the Bogue Fellowship - which supports postgraduate research students and post-doctoral researchers working in the Life and Biomedical Sciences - and the UCLFAA Scholarships, that fund US students for master’s degrees at UCL. This month, May is thrilled to have been appointed as President.
She says: “My mind is wired strategically, which I hope to bring to the role. I want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to contribute in a more meaningful way to what we provide. I’m really excited to get started!”
As May moves into her new role with the UCLFAA, she’s keen to encourage as many former UCL students as possible to get involved with the UCL alumni community, starting with the Alumni Group on LinkedIn. She says: “You may end up mentoring someone who will look up to you and thrive at UCL and in their career because of your help. Or it could benefit you by bringing you a new network of professionals to connect with. The schemes are run really well, and the alumni team is hugely supportive.
“I’ve seen so many benefits to being involved, personally and professionally, so get in touch, and get involved!
May adds: “Between my BSc, PhD, and work as a research assistant, I spent ten of the happiest years of my life at UCL. It's truly hard to put my gratitude and dedication to UCL in words.”
You can reach May through her LinkedIn profile.
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